He didn’t like the term, "mental illness": A difficult chat with a complete stranger

Updated: Nov 16, 2019

Sabra Robinson

It was a good day for a lunch and learn.

My daughter and I finally arrived at the mall after a great “lunch and learn” discussion and it was time for some retail therapy (on her end) at the fashion retail store, Forever 21. Because I knew her shopping style, I put my foot into action and walked over to the familiar bench that usually welcomed me with a vacancy. This time, it wasn’t. There was a young white man with red hair sitting by himself. I headed towards him and he saw me coming. As soon as I seated myself he stood up and walked down the aisle opposite the direction I was sitting. I watched him walk away until he faded into the crowd. I turned back around, retrieved my cell phone, opened the CNN app and perused through their newsfeed until I found a political subject that caught my attention. As soon as I began to read, the young man had returned to sit in the same open space on the bench that he left. No more than five minutes of being in his presence, I heard a soft-spoken male’s voice.

“Do you feel you’re alone on this earth?” he asked me. His question caught me off guard but somehow I felt he needed the conversation or validation more than I needed to read the news. I hesitated and not sure where this was going, I replied, “Yes, I have at one point. Do you?"

He looked straight ahead as he continued to provide his response (this happened several times during our 25-minute conversation). He shook his head slowly in the affirmative. He told me that he didn't have faith in this world. I could sense that his soul was tired. I knew that I had to respond. "I know what you mean," I said as I tried to comfort him. "My husband died six years ago and I fell into a depression and I was in bad shape." He looked surprised - very surprised. "Oh, I am so very sorry for your loss.” he said. "Thank you." He then began a conversation that only he could mostly understand; I continued to display interest. He babbled off about the Star Wars character, Luke Skywalker, and asked if I was familiar with his eccentricities. He then glorified those “humans with dilated pupils”, and mentioned the social news aggregation website, Reddit, and how he allowed himself to be “had” by another human being. He furthered his conversation about how he had met someone online, how he was hacked, how the earth is evil, how he prays for the troops and First Responders, and how he admires an American 80’s rock band called Phish (I told him wasn’t familiar with this band). [I can’t recount the conversation verbatim so I’m working off of my notes that I took immediately after our chat]

I listened intently and asked him if he prayed. He did every morning. As far as my response to his question (if the world is evil), I told him that it’s unfortunate that there were evil people in the world and how mental illness was prevalent and how prayer was needed. “I hate the use of that term,” he replied. That’s when I became concerned. He clearly was uncomfortable with the reference to mental illness. "What do you think makes people evil? Do you think it’s inherited?" I wasn’t a licensed professional and I clearly wasn't prepared for this type of impromptu, therapeutic-seeking exchange. I told him that sometimes money can cause people to act evil. He agreed. “I was had,” he added. "Someone took my money." He appeared devasted but seemingly calm. He had a deep, intense, innocent way about him. At one point he looked defeated. He placed his head down between his bent arms as if he had just given up his spirit. “May I ask your name?” He gestured no. I told him my name. I told him to try to stay positive. I was curious as to why he selected me to hold a conversation with. I, a black woman minding her business in a mall attempting to catch up on the latest political rhetoric was curious about his selection. “What made you come to me? What made you want to hold a conversation with me?” I pried. He smiled...again. “I just wanted to hear other people's opinions." I continued to pry some more. "How old are you?" "Twenty-five." "Are you here alone?" "I’m doing a friend a favor." "Do you live alone?" "No" That's all he gave me. Short and to-the-point responses to the kind of questions a detective or therapist would ask. I didn’t know who I was dealing with. I didn’t know what to expect. I had never dealt with this before. I wasn’t nervous, just interested; interested in hearing what he had to say. He thanked me for taking the time to speak with him. He stood up in satisfaction and quickly walked back into the direction he came. And our conversation was over. I immediately prayed for him, and decided to write down everything that I had experienced and could remember. Did he realize it was mental health awareness month? Maybe, maybe not. Just as I had walked away, I saw a security officer walk towards me. I thought for a few moments whether I should tell him what I had just experienced. I did. He didn't appear too concerned like I had assumed. He was an older, white gentleman who listened but didn't write anything down. "I want our guests to feel at home so don't feel bad for reporting this," he said. I gave him a description of what he looked like, he listened and then told me he will keep an eye out. And that was it. Our conversation was over. It bothered me the entire evening so I decided to write about it. This is what I learned: *Listen with the intent to understand the story of others no matter who it Is, how far-fetched it may appear or the location of the connection. People just need an outlet even though it may interrupt yours. *Think about what you’re saying, how you’re saying it, and when to say it. *Don’t judge the walk of others but also use wisdom in your approach. *Try to remember what was discussed.


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